Neighborhood eclipsed: Red Hook bar owner Sunny Balzano is dead at 81

Neighborhood eclipsed: Red Hook bar owner Sunny Balzano is dead at 81
File photo by Tom Callan

Iconoclastic Red Hook bar owner and artist Antonio “Sunny” Balzano, who survived a gunpoint hold-up, partied with Andy Warhol, and quoted Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett at whim, died of a stroke on Thursday at Methodist Hospital. He was 81 years old.

The twinkle-eyed, wild-haired bon vivant, who painted abstract expressionist originals and screened classic Martha Graham dance performances on a projector, was the subject of numerous documentaries, articles, books, and television shows, including Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” But he was happiest tending bar and matching wits with a motley crew of honky-tonk musicians, artists, mobsters, boozers, nuns, longshoremen, and self-professed kooks at Sunny’s Bar, his family-owned watering hole on an abandoned strip of Conover Street by the river and a knot of railroad tracks leading to Siberia.

Balzano’s death eclipsed the neighborhood, said friends.

Sunny at the door of his eponymous Red Hook Bar.
Photo by Tom Callan

“I’m going to miss not seeing Sunny walking around,” said Red Hook artist David Gonzalez, who grew up with Balzano’s niece. “He was the friendliest guy with the loveliest personality, and when you talked to him you just wanted to embrace him.”

His departure left a void, added another pal.

“A lot of people will miss Sunny, he was a real character,” said John Heyer, who knew him for 40 years. “I felt bad when I heard he had died.”

Callie Farnsworth and Yaria Pasquini mixed and mingled with legendary barkeep Balzano.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Balzano was born in a brick apartment next to Sunny’s, which his great-grandfather opened in 1890. An uncle took over and renamed it John’s Restaurant and Bar back in the day when Brooklyn was still a shipping crossroads, the channel buoy rang offshore, and packs of wild dogs and brawlers roamed the streets.

“You almost had to fight to survive,” Balzano told this newspaper in 2011, relaying how he thwarted street thugs in the 1940s only to battle gun-slinging bar robbers four decades later.

The former Air Force serviceman traveled across the country and to India, where he worshipped at the feet of a guru, to fulfill his wanderlust. He returned home to help with the family business and took over after his uncle’s death. Balzano transformed the languishing spot into a popular night club for a new and energetic fringe-arts community that was immediately drawn to the exciting grand-daddy of trail-blazing beatniks.

When Sunny's bar was battered by Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of friends stepped up to help raise money at a benefit concert at teh Bell House.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

“Going into Sunny’s was like being let in on a secret,” said cartoonist and Courier arts editor Bill Roundy. “It was like going into his living room and being welcomed like part of a club.”

Roundy immortalized the tap room in his Bar Scrawl cartoon column, “Let the good times roll again at Sunny’s,” when it re-opened after Hurricane Sandy, calling it “a destination bar.”

Balzano, a renaissance man who could have lived anywhere in the world, chose to stay in the neighborhood of his birth and sleep in the room where he was born until his death, but he will be best remembered for making Sunny’s an enduring Brooklyn symbol that Tim Sultan explains in his book “Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World.”

Sunny mixes a dring.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

“Imagine that Alice had walked into a bar instead of falling down the rabbit hole,” Sultan writes.

A wake will be held for Sunny Balzano at Scotto’s Funeral Home in Carroll Gardens. Details were not available at press time.